Saving Money

Lately, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to my discretionary spending. I know that I spend more than I should on things I don’t really want or need, so I’m working on being more mindful of my choices. This has been an interesting experiment. I have found that it’s actually quite easy to save money as long as you practice a certain sense of money mindfulness.

Example:

One thing I won’t skimp on in life is a decent haircut. I have thick, curly hair that most stylists struggle with cutting. I will pay pretty much anything to have my hair cut properly by someone who embraces the curl.

Recently, I found one of these stylists. The haircut was actually quite affordable ($40 or so), and she introduced me to some products that might help bring out the best in my curls. She didn’t push to make a sale, and I appreciated that.

One of the products she recommended is a microfiber towel to gently dry my curls by cloth2hand right out of the shower. She sells these for $20 each. Not bad, I thought. I didn’t buy one that day, but filed that away in the back of my mind to consider buying one on my next visit.

I also made a mental note to keep an eye out for microfiber towels elsewhere so I could price compare.

One night at Aldi, I found a twelve-pack of microfiber towels for $4.99.cloth

That’s right – a twelve-pack. For dirt cheap.

So by not simply grabbing the shiny object when it was literally dangled in my face, I got a much better value elsewhere without sacrificing the high-quality haircut that is important to me.

Another example:

I had a $10 coupon to CVS that was about to expire. I was determined to use every one of these ten dollars. I could have just gone and bought ten dollars worth of stuff and been done with it. Instead, before going to the store, I checked online to see if there were any other coupons I could use to maximize the savings.

It’s CVS, people. Of course there were other coupons I could use.

Neutrogena had a coupon for $3 off, as did L’Oreal. I wanted to buy a new mascara, so that was perfect. I spent some time looking at both displays before making my choice.

I ended up walking out with a mascara, a new eye shadow, and a coffee drink for about a dollar and change.cvs

All it took was a few extra minutes to look up some coupons, and then some patience in the store while I made thoughtful decisions rather than just grabbing stuff off the shelf like I used to do.

Another example:

There were two books I wanted to read recently. The old me would have placed an order online and had the books delivered to my door. New me called the local library. They had both books on the shelf. All I had to do was make one phone call and drive to the library two miles away, and I got both books in my hand that day, for free.

I’m finding that patience and thoughtful decision-making are the keys to saving money when it comes to discretionary spending. I’m looking forward to what other deals I can find.

What tricks have you found to save money or maximize your spending?

What Does Fifteen Minutes Mean to You?

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View from the elevator of the hotel once I finally checked in.

I can do a lot of things in fifteen minutes. I can hardboil some eggs. I can run a mile and a half. I can take a cat nap. I can read a chapter in a book.

What I find frustrating is spending that fifteen minutes on hold, in particular when the hold is with a major hotel chain known for their customer experience.

I won’t name the hotel chain today. I’m not looking to shame a specific business, in particular because the specific business isn’t the real problem.

The real problem is what passes for customer service these days.

Who actually thinks that it’s good for business or makes customers happy to need fifteen minutes before you can speak with a live human about your reservation?

All I needed to do was call the hotel and confirm that I did make a request for a refrigerator in my room.

That’s it. That’s all I wanted to do.

I had the phone number for the hotel. I had my confirmation number. I gave them a call.

The woman who answered asked for my confirmation number, and then cut me off before I had finished reading it out to her.

She insisted that was not my confirmation number. Oh, but it is, I assured her. I called this same phone number and gave this same conf…

“Ma’am, our confirmation numbers start with a 7 or 2. Yours started with a 3. That’s not a number in our system.”

Again, I started to explain that I had just called the other ni…

“What’s the last name, ma’am, perhaps I can find the reservation that way.”

I spelled my name.

It turns out that she couldn’t find the reservation because it’s more than 8 days prior to check in.

Excuse me? This is a major hotel chain. The company is worldwide. Yet you can’t find my reservation in the system a mere 25 days out?

I started to again try to explain that I had actually called this same phone number, and provided this same confirmation number just last week and spoken with a person who found my reservation right away, but Ms. Customer Service had no time for that.

“Ma’am, the best I can do is transfer you to another office where they might be able to find you by that confirmation number, which is the number provided because you booked as part of a group rate.”

“But just the other da….”

And, I’m on hold. Awesome.

I wondered how, exactly, this major hotel chain remains so major despite this bizarre idea they have for what constitutes customer service. I wasn’t being argumentative. I wasn’t being difficult. In fact, I was as nice as can be. I simply wanted to talk to a human and be able to finish my sentences.

Turns out, that was a lot to ask.

I was transferred to one of those automated systems we all know and do not love. With the robot woman’s voice saying, “Hi there. I just need to ask you a few questions to route you to the appropriate person.”

I seriously could not even deal with this. Not after I called the same number I called a few nights ago and got a person who could help me. What was different tonight? Why was I now speaking with a robot? Argh. No.

“Human being,” I said.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” robot-woman said. “If you could just answer a few questions…”

Me: Human being.

Robot-woman: If you could just…

Me: Human being.

Robot-woman: “If you can answer a few questions, I can route you faster to …”

Me: Human being.

Robot-woman: “I think you are saying you would like to speak to a customer service reprsentativ…

Me: Dear god, yes.

Robot-woman: If you could just answer a few questions first, I can better route you to…

Me: ARGH HUMAN BEING.

Robot-woman: If you could just…

Me: HUMAN BEING.

Robot-woman: If you could just…

Me: HUMAN BEING.

Robot-woman: If you…

Me: HUMAN BEING HUMAN BEING HUMAN BEING!

Robot-woman: Please hold while I connect you.

I was then on hold for fifteen solid minutes. I folded some laundry. I poured some wine. I contemplated having pie for dinner.

Finally, a nice lady named Nancy answered the call. Nancy was able to look up my confirmation number. Nancy confirmed that the reservation is not fully in the system until 8-10 days prior to check in (what? seriously?), but she would be happy to make a note of my request on the reservation.

Nancy was lovely. I appreciate Nancy. It is not Nancy’s fault that it took me fifteen minutes, one less than helpful customer service representative and a robot to get to her. She couldn’t really explain – or understand – why the original person wouldn’t or couldn’t help me, nor provide a different phone number or way to contact the hotel in the future. But, this is not Nancy’s fault.

I’m sure it’s cost-effective in the short term for big hotel chains to use the robot lady, but I’m not sure what their excuse is for the difficulty with the conversation with the first person with whom I spoke.

I’m also willing to bet that with so many business travelers, people just deal with this nonsense, because their job is paying for it. Or maybe they’re used to it. I find it hard to believe that people might not care. A simple phone call to request a refrigerator in my hotel room for a reservation occurring in less than a month should not have taken fifteen minutes, two humans, and a robot. This call should have taken three minutes, tops, and been far more pleasant.

This experience, though, is a crystal clear picture as to why, when I travel for myself and not for business, I avoid big name hotels. I much prefer AirBnB rentals, where the accommodations are better, and where there is more of a personal touch.

How to Cook Like Julia Child: A Play in Two Acts

ACT I

[Marie is in her kitchen, assembling ingredients and reviewing the appropriate pages of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to prepare the Custard Apple Tart. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major streams from Pandora.]

Marie: I have reviewed the recipe, purchased the ingredients, and assembled all the things. I even poured a beer to enjoy as I cook. I’m ready!IMG_4430.jpg

Marie: [Reads aloud Step 1 of the Custard Apple Tart Recipe on page 637] Use the sweet short paste on page 633 for the pastry shell. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Marie: [Preheats oven. Turns to page 633.]

Marie: [The recipe lists “Amounts Needed” as follows:

“For an 8- to 9-inch shell, proportions for 1 ½ cups flour.”

“For a 10- to 11-inch shell, proportions for 2 cups flour.”

IMG_4422.jpgThen, “Proportions for 1 cup flour” with the actual recipe to follow.]

Marie: …

Marie: [Asking a friend] Does this mean that I’m to adjust the recipe by adding .5 for everything since I have a 9-inch pan?

Friend: This is nuts. I have no idea. I’ll read it some more.

Friend:I believe you adjust the recipe amounts to 1.5. So you’ll use 1 cup flour and 1.5 cups sugar.

Marie: This is why I don’t use Julia’s recipes more. They make me crazy. I adjust everything, right, not just the flour?

Friend: Adjust fats by .5 also. Urgh!

Marie:I can’t do math! Damn you, Julia!

Friend:Blahhh – why butter AND shortening?

Marie: 1 ½ T shortening x .5 is…2.25 T shortening?

Friend: 2 T and 1 tsp. Unless you have a quarter tablespoon measure. A teaspoon is about a third of a tablespoon.

Marie: Don’t round. Must be precise. I need the math.

Friend: Urk. 2 T plus .75 tsp.

Marie: Argh. I got 2.25 T. Is that the same thing?

Lisa: I think so?

Marie: All I can think of is my remedial math teacher in college intoning, “fractions never go away.”

Lisa: I hate that teacher! But, he is right.

Marie: [Mixes dough. Does baking things.] Seriously? The dough has to chill in the freezer for an hour. Guess I’ll turn the oven off.

Friend: Oh, fer…

Marie: I’m assuming that the “freezing compartment of the refrigerator” is the freezer, yes?

Friend: Hahahahaha!

Marie: Or, the dough can be refrigerated for two hours or overnight. That’s right, two hours, or tomorrow. There is no in-between, apparently.

Marie: [reviews instructions for making the dough] It says to “place the flour in the bowl, mix in the sugar and salt, and then proceed to make the dough …” Make the dough? That’s the instruction? It’s like being on the technical challenge of the Great British Baking Show.

Marie: [Looks up instructions for making the dough on page 140]

Marie: [Reads aloud the instructions for making the dough in a food processor. She is not making this up.]

Measure the dry ingredients into the bowl. Quarter the chilled sticks of butter lengthwise and cut crosswise into 3/8 inch pieces; add to the flour along with the chilled shortening. Flick the machine on and off 4 or 5 times, then measure out a scant half-cup of iced water. Turn the machine on and pour it all in at once; immediately flick the machine on and off….

Marie: [Stops reading, because that is insane.]

Marie: [Reviews how to make dough with her hands.]

Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry board. With the heel of one hand, not the palm which is too warm, rapidly press the pastry by two-spoonful bits down on the board and away from you…

Marie: Forget this, I’m just going to knead the dough.

Marie: [Reads instructions}

“Then press the dough firmly into a roughly shaped ball. It should just hold together and be pliable but not sticky.”

Marie: What if it IS sticky, Julia? What, then?IMG_4423.jpg

Marie: [Rolls the sticky dough into a ball, wraps it in waxed paper as directed, and places it on a plate in the refrigerator for two hours, but not overnight, having not felt confident on the meaning of the “freezing compartment of the refrigerator.”]

Marie: [Finishes beer and wonders what she got herself into.]

[End of scene, End of Act I]

 

ACT II

[After a walk outdoors to rethink her culinary choices, Marie is back in the kitchen, attempting to roll out what she hopes will pass for dough. The only sound is that of her despair.]

[Six hours later…]

Marie: I have a tart! It’s pretty and it tastes good. Also, I am never doing this again.

[End of scene, End of Act II, End of Play]

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Imposter Syndrome

Recently, I’ve been talking with some fellow professionals about imposter syndrome. This is where you never feel like you’re quite good enough, but work on faking it till you’re making it. It’s when you assume a certain role yet never quite feel qualified, and wonder when other people will figure it out.

The more I talk about it with others, the more I realize that we all experience this phenomenon.

Other people look at me, and think that because I can put “PhD” after my name, I must really know a lot of stuff.

Well, I am pretty smart, but I was smart before I earned the degree, and plenty of people who don’t have those letters after their names are pretty smart as well.

The degree alone is not an indication of intelligence, or success, or the ability to own a room, or, let’s be real, an indication of ability to obtain gainful employment. The job market is tough out there, especially for people with “PhD” after their name.

So, what is it, then?

I really think the degree is a “to each, her own,” kind of situation.

For me, I have learned that those letters after my name are an indication of my stubbornness, my personal drive, and my simple yet profound inability to tolerate bullshit.

There’s a story that Neil Gaiman tells about having a conversation with a polite, older gentleman at a party. The gentleman gestures to the others in the room – people who are accomplished at Doing Great Things – and says that he doesn’t belong there. After all, he explains, he just went where he was told.

Well, says Neil Gaiman in response, you were the first man to walk on the moon. That has to count for something.

That’s right; even Neil Armstrong has moments of experiencing imposter syndrome, despite his incredible achievements in aviation.

Much like Neil Armstrong, I feel the need to reduce my accomplishments to simply following a checklist. To earn a doctorate in Literature, do these things. Enroll in classes, check. Earn high grades in these classes, check. Take and pass qualifying oral and written exams, check. And so forth.

Because I simply followed the checklist, I often feel I need to apologize for the degree sometimes, or to hide it, as if to say,  “I know this doesn’t make me better than anyone else. And I’m just as self-confident without it. Please don’t think I’m a jerk.”

Much like Neil Armstrong, I simply followed the path I was pointed down and checked things off my list. And yet, I realize now that one of the singular benefits I earned from working on this degree is that I was willing to raise hell when I was prevented from accomplishing some of the things on said list.

One of those things involved earning X credits of coursework in order to qualify for graduation. I moved through my program, earning said credits (check). I asked for, and received, approval to take several classes at the college where I earned my master’s degree (check). After successful completion of these classes, I had official transcripts sent to my doctoral program advisor (check), who confirmed receipt.

Then, he retired and left the university. Years passed. I had completed all other items on the checklist and was ready to graduate.

Then, with mere hours to go before close of business on the last possible day that I could have all materials submitted to the graduate school to qualify for graduation, I received an email saying they had never received my transcript for the classes I took years before. I had an email from the previous graduate coordinator confirming receipt of them, but no one cared. The mistake was on the part of the university, yet I was going to suffer the consequences.

I…did not handle it well. This came after many other obstacles that were so unacceptable I still cannot believe this was my experience.

I ended up on the phone with my sister, clock ticking, trying to figure out what to do.

My panic lasted about twelve seconds before my resolve kicked in. There was no way I was letting this happen. I was not going down without a fight.

My sister called a courier while I called the registrar of my former school. I explained the situation, and the registrar graciously agreed to expedite an official copy of my transcript, bless her beating, beautiful heart.

The courier picked up the transcript, and I met him at my university. We walked into the graduate office together, with less than an hour to spare before close of business.

Everyone froze. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but in hindsight I see that they must have all thought I was serving the dean with legal papers.

Instead, I simply wanted the dean’s signature to acknowledge receipt of the transcript in time for me to graduate that term. There had already been several other delays for reasons outside my control, and another six-month delay to graduation based on an error on the part of the university was not something I was willing to accept.

An office staffer tried to get the courier to let him sign for it. I refused to allow it. I insisted that the dean step out of his office to sign for it himself.

More silence. They tried again to get me to acquiesce; I stood my ground.

Finally, the dean came out. He signed the paper on the clipboard, and the currier went away. He reviewed the transcript and said that it was sufficient, though expressed surprise that I had gone to such lengths to get it to him.

And, in the end, it turned out that I had one class too many and didn’t need to go through all of this, but the people reviewing my file were inept and incompetent. There were a lot of instances of incompetence and poor process management along my way toward completing that checklist. But after all of the work I had put in dealing with this nonsense, I was determined to finish what I started.

Maybe I’m not such an imposter after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Can Learn a Lot From a Grocery Store

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is visit local grocery stores. These spaces are often the best way to learn about the similarities and differences of local culture.

In France, the wine selection goes on for days and days. Sometimes there is even a wine cellar. The wine is all dirt cheap (think $2-3 a bottle for something that would easily cost $25-30 in the States), and very good.

The French also love smoked salmon, apparently, because never in my life have I seen such a selection of that particular item.

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I wasn’t kidding about the smoked salmon.

In Italy, what’s not on the shelves is interesting: peanut butter. While you may find familiar labels (Nivea, Dove, Nestle) on the shelves, peanut butter of any brand has not infiltrated Italian culture.

In Iceland, I found a variety of dried fish, candy that tasted like menthol, and skeins of wool right there near the cash registers.

In Japan, a four-pack of peaches cost $20. A lot of fruit has to be imported, so the prices reflect that.

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I wasn’t kidding about the menthol candy, either.

One thing I have noticed in particular is that in European countries, eggs are found on a non-refrigerated shelf. I was happy to have the opportunity to explore why when invited to write an article about it for moneysmartfamily.com. The short version as to why some cultures refrigerate their eggs and some do not lies in how we approach managing salmonella. The chickens, and the eggs, are essentially the same.

I hope you enjoy reading about the cultural differences of egg storage. Please share the differences you have found with grocery store food when traveling!